Friday, 06 January 2012

Neighbourliness and the natural disaster effect Here’s an article by Queensland sociologist Lynda Cheshire, reflecting on the contrast between neighbourly behaviour during the floods in that state last year, and a reported ‘rise in neighbourly tensions’ that apparently characterises contemporary Australian life. Why are neighbours still there when needed, she asks, 'even if their noise, smells and habits are cause for complaint the rest of the time?' Cheshire notes that the contrast might partly be explained by an increased ability to avoid confrontation by referring difficulties to official intermediaries (like this example I blogged not long ago) and points out that this is ‘a costly habit’: ‘There is a possibility that the wave of goodwill exhibited during the floods will minimise neighbourly conflicts, or at least reduce registered complaints. But it may also create new sets of expectations about neighbours and new forms of conflict if these normative codes are breached.’ I’m reminded that some months ago I wrote about the way supportive neighbourly responses in time of large-scale disasters throw up somewhat nostalgic reflections about how our societies have 'lost' the values that are warmly evidenced in time of adversity. Cheshire’s article does not come into that category, although she does appear at least in this case to reproduce uncritically the received narrative of decline. I'd like to know more about whether neighbourliness in Australia really has declined and in what ways, and how that compares with the UK where similar claims are so often made.
Neighbouring, older people and those who live alone: statistically they don’t stand out Thank you to ICM Research, who have published questions and data from a recent survey of neighbouring and concerns about winter (the Home Alone survey), carried out for AA Home Emergency Response. In spite of attempts in the press release to put an alarmist spin on the findings, I think they’re largely reassuring. The claim is made that ‘Overall more than one in eight people (13%) say they don't know any of their neighbours.’ Among those who live alone, the figure rises unsurprisingly, but only to 16 per cent. For those who live with friends, it’s a whopping 30 per cent, but this goes unremarked. It may be worth pointing out that quite a lot of people prefer to have nothing to do with their neighbours; and quite a lot of people will have been in their current place of residence for only a short time (length of residence is not included as a variable). What the data show is a little more nuanced than the quote above, with a decent attempt to get beyond the blurring caused by the word ‘know’. The results include the following questions and overall percentages: I would recognise my neighbours but I don't know them to speak to: 7% I wouldn't recognise most of my neighbours: 5% I wouldn't recognise any of my neighbours: 1% I think I preferred the question that was used in the 2008 Full of Life survey, which asked people to indicate if they knew their neighbours well enough to say 'hello'. (With the change of government, the Full of Life study has now disappeared from the DWP website, but at the time I noted that 93 per cent said that they did). The Home Alone survey shows very little variation between social grades. There’s a remarkable consistency in these two sets of responses, for instance: All AB C1 C2 DE I know most of my neighbours 38% 38% 39% 38% 37% I wouldn't recognise any of my neighbours 5% 4% 6% 5% 4% The 2010 YouGov survey for the Co-Op used two social grade categories (ABC1 and C2DE) and similarly showed negligible difference in responses to the question ‘Approximately how many of your current neighbours would you say you know by name?’ The Home Alone survey was designed to probe for the need for help or support ‘if you had a problem at home’. According to the results, older people are as likely as the rest of us to know someone within range and certainly on their street, who they can call for help. Overall, 51 per cent of respondents said the nearest was within a quarter of a mile (14 per cent said ‘on my street’); 59 per cent of the over-65s claimed this, with 17 per cent saying ‘on my street’. Again, that's reassuring. The question is slightly spoiled by the wording, which refers to ‘the nearest friend or family member’: it would have helped to be clear as to whether or not neighbours are assumed to...

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